5 min read

I Wish America had a Volume Button

Our very attempts to escape the noise constantly around us have led to ever-escalating calls for our attention.
I Wish America had a Volume Button

Greetings fellow travelers.

As Americans abroad for many years, my wife and I were always sensitive to fitting in with the locals. We sometimes cringed at seeing typical American tourists, who stand out for miles:

  • Dress: some combination of baseball cap, shorts, t-shirt, white socks, and sneakers (not judging, you will see me dressed this way often as well)
  • Tourist behavior: carrying a map (less noticeable now that everyone is on their phone for everything), taking copious pictures (less noticeable now that everyone takes selfies in front of anything), and speaking only English or, rather, "American"
  • Corpulence: often quite a bit heftier than locals

By far the most reliable indicator of an American abroad, however, was when you heard them. Often before you could see them, you would hear the telltale sign: a person talking at completely inappropriate volume. With no apparent shame, Americans conduct publicly what would for most of us be private conversations.

We used to think American tourists were clueless and arrogant in speaking so loudly. Did they really think everyone around them was interested in what they had to say?

Now being back in the U.S. for several months, we realize our mistake. Americans are just as loud at home too. At first, we found this amusing. It is so much easier to eavesdrop on conversations here. Part of this is because people are speaking in our native tongue. But beyond that, people just babble on in public on the most amazing topics as if there was no one around them. I'm not sure I'd share the details of my last performance review or doctor's visit so publicly, but hey, you go right ahead.

What can be the reasons for this particular American quirk? Why are we so damned loud wherever we go? I can think of two possible reasons, although I am sure there are more. First, America celebrates individualism more than most cultures. And second, because we are bathed by incessant noise, we have to be louder ourselves to be heard. Let's explore both ideas.

American individualism makes us stand out

In America it is not only OK to be wildly individual. If you want to stand out, you need to be brash, bold, even outrageous. Pundits and politicians learn early on that being boring is deadly. True, if you say inflammatory things, you will alienate some people. But everyone will know your name. Twitter and TikTok exist because Americans love to be titillated. In this environment, being quiet is no virtue.

Now contrast Europe and Asia. There is a greater sense of collective responsibility. Standing out is a way to get noticed, but not in a good way. If the U.S. motto is "the squeaky wheel gets the grease," the European-Asian motto might be "the nail that sticks out gets hammered." It is riskier to be overheard, because you just make a target of yourself.

I do see signs that what Elon Musk calls the "woke mind virus" has infected large swaths of America. Speaking out openly against this orthodoxy has created real risks for people. But because America protects individual freedoms to such an extent, at least historically there was little real risk to speaking your mind. This means the typical American actually does feel, even if subconsciously, that what they say and do is important, so why shouldn't everyone around them hear it.

Having thus overheard countless conversations in the last few months, I have some sad news: most of what we say is utterly banal. No one cares because it would be impossible to care. Nothing personal, but I don't want to know what books you read recently, what you ate yesterday, what your coworker said to you this morning, how your contractor is overcharging you, where you are going on vacation next month, or virtually anything else about your life. What I really want to know is when you are going to order your coffee and get out of the line.

Background noise is making us deaf

Now to the second point, which is America's noise epidemic. Spend a few hours in an American and a European airport on the same day, as we did recently, and you will be struck by how unrelentingly you are bombarded with noise in the U.S. I suppose airport announcements are similar enough in both places. But then add the following to the American scene:

  • the beeping of carts driving past every few minutes bearing "travelers needing additional assistance,"
  • the blaring of door alarms for gates opened by ground staff and not closed quickly enough,
  • nonstop babble from countless TVs strewn about so strategically that you cannot escape their mindless drone,
  • the cries of overtired children, pushed beyond their and their parents' limits, and so left to carry out their individual tantrums for the rows of watching adults, whose own emotions are only marginally better contained,
  • the hum of hundreds of one-sided conversations, whose participants seem to think that because the other person's voice is only in their ear bud, everyone else in the terminal must not be able to hear their side of the call either.

As if this weren't enough, we've noticed many U.S. airports also play background music at staggering volumes. Why, oh why, did someone conclude that blaring music would improve the airport experience? This last one is common to many public venues, especially restaurants. I can only conclude that venue operators hate their lives, their customers, or both.

Trying to hide only makes it worse

With so many noisy distractions clamoring for our attention, it is no surprise people seek relief. Most people wear ear buds or headphones, and have their faces glued to a mobile device. They zone out all noises around them and focus on their own inner worlds.

But our very attempts to escape the noise constantly around us have led to ever-escalating calls for our attention. Go to any reasonably sized U.S. city and listen for the sounds of the emergency vehicles: police cars, fire trucks, ambulances. Because we're all in our own bubbles of private noise, these vehicles have become positively strident in seeking to attract our attention. They all seem way louder to us now than when we left 25 years ago.

When we first moved back to the U.S., we spent a few weeks in an Airbnb above a busy intersection. We thought we'd go mad with the regular passage of ambulances in the deep of night. There's really no one else on the road at 3:00 a.m., so why exactly are you running your siren the whole way?!

The more we become inured to background noise, the louder everything needs to be to draw our attention. The escalation has to stop. How? The only hope I see is if we start to pay attention to what's going on around us again. Rather than retreating to our headphones and our podcasts, what if we were present and engaged enough to notice an only moderately loud emergency vehicle coming up behind us?

If more of us were present in life, the people fighting to attract our attention wouldn't have to try so hard. In the meantime, I am buying earplugs in bulk.

Be well.